Harpur 2012 [Paul, TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland, Brisbane, “From disability to ability: changing the phrasing of the debate,” Disability & Society Vol. 21, No. 2]
It is important for disability scholarship to deconstruct the threads of social commonality and divergence (Thomas 1999). How do we theorise difference? The categories of male and female are separated by definite biological boundaries. Disabled and able-bodied categories in contrast are not natural but are constructed by society (Corker and Shakespeare 2002). For example, when does a limp or poor eyesight become a disability? When society decides that the abnormality is sufficient to be labelled disabled. How can people with emerging disabilities advocate when many of their impairments do not come within society’s traditional perception of disabilities (Fox and Kin 2004)? Should arbitrary lines exclude those whose different abilities are not defined by the disability industry as disabled? For deconstructionists, the process of categorising people reflects imbedded values and social constructions (Thomas 2004). What do these categories mean for advocacy? Through focusing upon how ableism denies people their human rights and not focusing upon the category of disability, advocacy has the potential of significantly expanding the debate. Ableism emphasises the idea that everyone will become impacted by ability discrimination at some point in their lives. The temporary nature of ‘normalcy’ has been explored in detail by Davis (2002). Davis argues that ethically the ‘dismodern body’ contains care of the body, care for the body and caring about the body (2002, 27–28). Through these three caring areas people are required to view issues through the dichotomy of impairment and normalcy. Davis argues that impairment is the reality for most people and that normalcy is a fantasy. People are more likely to have some form of dependence (Davis 2002, 31). Bodies are rarely ‘normal’ and independence is transient. Even where a person has no dependents, they are not truly ‘normal’ but in a state best described as temporarily able-bodied. As a consequence Davis argues that humans ‘exist in varying degrees of imperfection’ (2002, 105). Davis argues for the value that legal protections offered to any class be offered to all classes (2002, 30). In essence, Davis encourages scholars to move away from categories of disability and start to focus upon interventions that focus upon abilities rather than upon disabilities. The focusing on the denial of human rights based upon abilities has the potential of expanding the stakeholders involved in the same struggle. Advocacy fighting against disability discrimination focuses upon helping a group of people who have impairments categorised as disabled. Advocacy fighting against discrimination focused upon ability, however, does not limit the beneficiaries of the advocacy to an artificial category of people. Many people in the community can confront discrimination based upon their abilities, which would not regard themselves or be categorised as disabled. For example, children have different abilities due to their age, pregnant women have different abilities due to their pregnancy, the elderly have different abilities caused by their aging bodies, people involved in workplace accidents may have temporary injuries, and the list goes on. What is significant about the people with different abilities in the previous list is that most would not regard themselves as disabled. If disability rights advocates phrased their arguments in terms of ableism, and thus render a greater number of people in the community stakeholders and beneficiaries of government interventions, then this increase in numbers could increase the strength of the advocacy. Through focusing upon different abilities, rather than upon disabilities, advocacy has the potential of identifying greater public policy benefits for interventions. For example, if disability rights advocates were advocating for wheelchair-accessible buildings, then this debate only impacts upon a small portion of the population. If the issue was turned to focus upon ramps or lifts to ensure all persons with limited ability could access the buildings, then this could involve parental groups fighting for parents ability to push babies in strollers, women’s groups advocating for the rights of pregnant women, groups representing the elderly who have limited abilities and industrial association who may have members with temporary impairments. If policy-makers assess the impact of reforms upon persons with disabilities, then this will benefit only a small group in society (see, however, Stein 2003, who argues that many reforms aimed at benefiting persons with disabilities may be economically neutral or actually benefit other groups in society). If the focus was upon all people who have abilities that differ from the norm, then the economic cost/benefit analysis of any reforms would significantly alter. Under the current model, interventions to assist people with disabilities are targeted at a relatively small group. If the focus was upon assisting any person with different abilities then the number of beneficiaries from architectural or other interventions would increase. The difference between utilising the label of ‘disability discrimination’ or ‘ableism’ is that disability discrimination unnaturally limits the focus to persons with disabilities. Focusing upon ableism, however, creates the possibility that the debate can be expanded and include other stakeholders and thus increase the impact of advocacy focused on avoiding ableism.